The Exorcist has been subject to several sequels and prequels. As a rule, these are justly forgotten.
The original Exorcist (1973) is rerun on TV from time to time, though I admit that I’ve never seen it from start to finish. Put another way, it’s one of those things where I see just enough to know that I don’t care to see any more.
This doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. From what I can tell, it’s a pretty good film of its kind. It was allegedly based on a real case of possession. I once saw a Catholic exorcist interviewed about the film. He said it was realistic insofar as things like that happened in cases of possession and exorcism, but unrealistic insofar as it was atypical to encounter all the stops and whistles in a single case.
Be that as it may, I recently saw two different versions of the same sequel. Their comparative interest lies in two different versions of the same sequel. The original director died, so Schrader was hired to take his place. However, the studio execs were displeased with his version, so they hired Harlin to reshoot it.
So these two versions give us different visions of two different directors working with the same basic plot. Mind you, I assume that Schrader had a freer hand than Harlin since Harlin was hired to make a more bankable version of the film. Schrader made the film to please himself whereas Harlin made the film to please the boss.
In general, Schrader’s version is much better than Harlin’s, although some of Harlin’s alternatives work in their own right.
The core of Schrader’s version involves a 4-way dynamic between an older priest (Merrin), a younger priest (Francis), a doctor (Rachel), and a demoniac (Cheche).
Dr. Rachel, Fr. Francis, and Cheche all push Merrin in different directions.
Merrin is a disillusioned priest. His faith was shattered during the Nazi occupation when he made a tragic choice. He now has recurrent nightmares in which his vision is blinded by bandages.
Francis is an idealistic priest who represents faith to Merrin’s doubt. Francis is part missionary, part Vatican minder. He was dispatched by the Vatican to keep in eye on Merrin.
During one tense moment, when Francis speaks to Merrin as “Christian to Christian, he says “Are you so arrogant that you involve the rest of the world in your crisis of faith? Would you deny to someone what you once cherished because you now doubt it?”
It’s one of the better moments in the film.
When he’s along side Cheche, Francis hears inner voices–which clues him to the fact that there’s more to Cheche than meets the eye.
Dr. Rachel is a holocaust survivor. She can sense in Merrin a kindred soul. She’s also a potential love interest.
The idea of finding rapport between one wounded soul and another is a bit of a cliché. However, it’s a valid storyline.
As for Cheche–when his possession becomes evident, that serves as a challenge and catalyst to Merrin’s backslidden condition. In the face of supernatural evil, he must rekindle his faith in God.
At least on paper, this 4-way dynamic gives the plot a fair amount of complexity and cohesion. Schrader’s version is essentially a tale about the loss and restoration of Christian faith. In that respect it’s one of those rare Hollywood films that takes the Christian faith seriously. No wonder the studio execs couldn’t stand it!
However, there’s a discrepancy between the idea and the execution. Stellan Skarsgard is well-cast as Merrin. At the same time, it’s a somewhat thankless role since Merrin is basically miserable from start to finish. Even when he regains his faith, it’s a grim, joyless affair. So there’s a gray, monochromatic tint to much of the performance, due to the way in which the role itself was written.
The actor (Gabriel Mann) who plays Francis in the Schrader version is adequate. However, he’s somewhat anemic. A rather weak actor in a strong role. No match for Skarsgard.
But Francis suffers a noble fate when he’s “martyred” by the demoniac. Indeed, the manner of his demise is a deliberate artistic allusion to the martyrdom of St. Sebastian–a theme much doted on by Renaissance painters.
(Incidentally, I’ve always felt that this betrays the homoerotic and sadomasochistic undercurrent in major streams of Catholic piety.)
The actress (Clara Bellar) who plays Rachel is also adequate. However, she’s a bit mousey and arch. Not the equal of Skarsgard. That also limits her appeal as a potential love interest.
In addition, she doesn’t seem to be sufficiently haunted by her experience as a holocaust survivor. She says a few things about her ordeal, and she as a serial number on her wrist, but if it weren’t for these overt indicators, there’s not much in her actual performance to suggest a holocaust survivor who made her own tragic choices in order to live–at the expense of her fellow captives.
Rachel has an enigmatic line about how God is best viewed from hell. This is left unexplained. In the context of the Schrader film, this may mean the ultimates in good and evil are most clearly seen in stark contrast.
Dramatically speaking, the characters of Merrin, Francis, and Rachel need to be coequals. He pushes them and they push back. This means the actors also need to compete on equal terms, which is not the case. You still get the idea, but that’s by mentally filling in the way it ought to be.
As for the actor (Billy Crawford) who plays Cheche, there are two problems. He’s all right as long as his character is in its timid, sickly phase. But when it morphs into a full-blown demoniac, it’s too much like a beagle cast as a Doberman.
Mind you, there are precious few actors who can play the Devil incarnate convincingly. Al Pacino was fun to watch, but that would be out of place in this film.
I have another problem with the choice of actor. I hesitate to use the term “racist,” inasmuch as that term is so overused in political discourse. However, in a movie in which all the other actors are either black or white, I think casting a Filipino in the role of the demoniac is a bit prejudicial. I assume that he was cast for the role because he looks “different.”
There are some other problems with the film. It lacks energy. Too slack. Motion without momentum.
Moreover, the film has a lengthy build-up to the predictable, indeed, inevitable confrontation between Merrin and the demoniac. Unfortunately, this climatic scene degenerates into the campyness of a stereotypical B-flick about possession, viz. fiery eyes, raspy voice, levitation. At one point the demoniac looks like Jim Carry in The Mask. Hardly the association you want at this juncture.
Here’s a case where less is more. The less you see the better.
Along the same lines, we’re treated to acidic affect of a crucifix or holy water when applied to the skin of a demoniac–which is a cliché of vampire films. Likewise, the action is punctuated by hyenas (in bargain-basement CGI), which are evidently the African equivalent of hellhounds–in a cinematic allusion to The Omen.
Even though this is badly executed, it has a convincing dramatic premise. The way in which the demoniac tempts Merrin is to give him a chance, in a daydream, to travel back in time and take the other fork in the road.
An implicit, underdeveloped subtheme is the way in which the indigenous witchcraft of the naives dovetails with the occultic presence of the demoniac. Evil synergism. They feed off each other.
The center of action is a pristine, Byzantine church, which was built and buried 1500 years ago to imprison the evil spirit. The church is dedicated to the Archangel Michael, who-, alone among God's creatures, is more than a match for Lucifer. And, not coincidentally, Merrin enlists the unseen support of Michael during the exorcism.
All in all, this film is an artistic failure. But in some ways a worthy failure.
By contrast, Harlin’s version is generally far inferior. It amps up the gross-out factor. And it lacks the narrative continuity.
However, it’s not all for the worse. Harlin has a more painterly eye. Majestic shots of the rocky wilderness in the rust-colored sunlight. Malevolent shadows lurking in the church.
Both Rachel (renamed Sarah) and Francis are very different characters. Because the area is cursed, the Vatican floated the rumor of a plague to keep the curious and unwary at bay–for their own safety.
Francis is dispatched by the Vatican as part of the cover-up. This, in turn, involves him in deceiving Merrin about the true nature of the mission–which is to conceal, rather than reveal, the truth.
In Harlin’s version, Fr. Francis isn’t the quite the pellucid idealist his counterpart was in Schrader’s version. Instead, Fr. Francis is now a double agent.
So he’s a more complex character. Yet even a double agent can be an idealist of sorts. His methods are devious, but his aims are noble.
James D’Arcy brings more intensity to his role than the rather wan Gabriel Mann. Unfortunately, he has a much smaller role to work with.
And in Harlin’s version, this role lacks the theological center that it had in Schrader’s version. But it’s still valid alternative.
In addition, the character of Rachel (renamed Sarah) is extensively rewritten. In this version, she is the demoniac, not Cheche.
Of course, this realigns a number of other relationships. Early on, when she meets Merrin for the first time, she questions him about his religious status. Although her true identity hasn’t been disclosed at this stage, it foreshadows her true identity. As a demoniac, she can “scent” the presence of a rival. He’s a threat. So she’s sizing him up at their first encounter. And there’s an undertone of dramatic irony to this scene, for she perceives something about him, while he remains in the dark about her.
It creates a point of tension, but only one character is tense, for only one character has the inside track.
Later in the film, Sarah repeats the same line as Rachel–about how the God is best viewed from hell. But on the lips of a demoniac, this acquires a very different connotation. A sarcastic connotation.
There’s one problem with the way the role is written. Misdirection is a common dramatic device. Point the audience away from the culprit by making the culprit initially seem innocent. Plant little clues that seem to implicate a different character.
That’s a way of sustaining the suspense. Like a whodunit. By process of elimination, the audience will eventually discover the culprit. Yet you can’t tip your hand to soon without spoiling the suspense.
But a common problem with this device is that it often makes the character act out of character. In this case, we have scenes in which Sarah acts scared of things that go bump in the night. And she does this even when she’s alone. When she’s not attempting to fool anyone about who she really is. But if, in fact, she were possessed, then we wouldn’t expect her to be afraid of things that go bump in the night since she herself is one of those things to go bump in the night!
In theory, there might be ways to harmonize this with her true character. One might treat possession like multiple-personality disorder. When one personality is in the foreground, the other is in the background. Or we might treat it like the episodic possession of Judas or King Saul. Intermittent visitations rather than full-blown possession.
Mind you, I’m sure that overinterprets the character. I expect this is a case in which consistency takes a backseat to dramatic conventions and facile scare tactics.
Not only is the role quite different, but the role is played by a different actress (Izabella Scorupco). Scorupco has a lot more pizzazz than Bellar. This is due in part to the fact that, in Harlin’s version, the doctor is a femme fatal–in more ways that one! Not doubt that’s a bit of a cliché. Nevertheless, Scorupco is a more compelling actress than Bellar. She can hold her on with Skarsgard in a way that a rather tame, demur actress like Ballar cannot. And that makes a big difference. They balance each other. The role has more panache, and so does the actress.
In Harlin’s version, Merrin is more clearly a whisky priest–like the protagonist in Graham Green's Brighton Rock. And there’s insufficient preparation for his abrupt spiritual turnabout near the end.
In this version, the church was built over the spot where Lucifer fell from heaven. Although that seems corny, it goes back to Dante.
The ending is just as bad as Schrader’s version. In some ways worse. At this stage, Sarah’s performance is a throwback to Linda Blair. Oscillating between a high-pitched cackle and a croaking basso profundo. However, that’s the point at which I made generous use of the fast-forward button, so I didn’t see the whole thing–except in a blur.
One thing that crosses my mind as a watch these films is how much harder it would be to be a celibate exorcist rather than a married exorcist. Imagine the harrowing ordeal of performing an exorcism, only to return to an empty house or empty apartment that evening. It takes so much out of you. What would be the emotional compensations if you had no wife or kids to come back to–to help you reenter a normal existence?
Incidentally, this is one area in which the Anglican tradition has certain advantages. If you were dealing with a situation which required the services of an exorcist, who would you go to?
For all its theological virtues, Presbyterianism isn’t the first place you’d normally turn to. Catholicism and Pentecostalism are both into exorcism, but they bring all their baggage along for the ride.
Unlike some other Protestant traditions, the Anglican tradition carries over the exorcismal tradition of the ancient church. But it also avoids some of the excesses of Catholicism and Pentecostalism in that regard.